Posted on: Sunday, August 19, 2007

The world according to art

By Bonnie Friedman
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

"Save Manhattan '03," in the African Pavilion, by Mounir Fatmi of Morocco, emits city sounds from a bunch of speakers in front of a New York City skyline.

Photos by BONNIE FRIEDMAN | Special to The Advertiser

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52. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, the 2007 Biennale di Venezia, celebrating contemporary artwork, continues in Venice through Nov. 21 (although some displays close earlier)

All-event pass, 50 euros (about $67); 15-euros-a- day pass allows entry to both of the key venues

Information and tickets online: www.labiennale.org/en

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A poster of The Biennale. "Pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente, l'arte al presente" ("Think with the senses, feel with the mind, art in the present tense").

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"Awishama, Mistress of the Coca" by Antonio Briceņo.

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"Weapons" — part of a Chinese installation at Arsenale. Although they look like missiles flying through the air, upon closer inspection you realize that the interior structures are "dressed" in clothes, much of it displaying designer labels.

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"1:1" is a Polish installation by Monika Sosnowska.

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A still from "Ocean Without a Shore," American Bill Viola's video installation in the 15th-century Church of San Gallo that looks at life and death.

Kira Perov

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"Dusasa II" and a detail (below) by El Anatsui of Nigeria. The piece is made of bottle caps, discarded metal tags, aluminum and copper wire stitched together.

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Jason Rhoades' "Tijuanatanjierchandelier" is an eye-popping cultural statement of neon, found objects, tourist kitsch, mattresses and more.

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I am not an artist, an art critic or an art scholar. I am an enthusiastic art appreciator thanks in large measure to having grown up in New York, a city with some of the world's greatest museums, and with a father who encouraged frequent visits to such places. My preference is for modern and contemporary art. And that is how a visit to Venice in June of an odd-numbered year landed at the top of my list of things to do before I die.

Every two years it is, arguably, the largest and most important contemporary art review anywhere. This year it is, officially, 52. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. To artists, art critics and art lovers the world over it is, simply, The Biennale. It began in 1895 and has been interrupted only twice — by world wars.

For six months every two years, the ancient Italian cluster of islands in a lagoon becomes a city of artistic dichotomy. Video screens are positioned, for example, on the altars of a 15th-century church. One gallery in an ages-old naval building is filled with 51 neon chandeliers.

In this particular odd-numbered year, striking red and chartreuse signs everywhere proclaim "Pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente, l'arte al presente" ("Think with the senses, feel with the mind, art in the present tense").

Yeah! Contemporary artists are supposed to shake things up a bit, right?

I had the extreme good fortune of being able to spend a month in Venice, and I assumed — wrongly — I'd be able to see it all. Now I know that all the planning and research in the world will not prepare you. You have to just go and get into your own Biennale groove.


Venice's Biennale, which celebrates contemporary art every other year, has two main venues — both located near the "tail" end of the fish-shaped city — and plenty other small ones all over the place.

Twenty-eight national pavilions fill one section of the Giardini (Public Gardens). They are permanent structures where these particular countries exhibit each Biennale. This year the Padiglione Italia (Italian Pavilion) was re-opened — after an eight-year hiatus — where more than 100 invited international artists fill 42 rooms and two outdoor exhibition areas.

The Arsenale (yes, it is where the word arsenal comes from) is a huge compound of docks and very big buildings where more than 16,000 people once worked and from which Venice's great merchant and military fleets were launched. Construction of this enormous complex began in 1104 and grew continually through the 16th century.

This Biennale year, it houses works by 57 artists from around the world in two long, narrow buildings separated by Turkey's first-ever pavilion and culminating in the first-ever African pavilion. The Biennale archives are here and so is a small building and courtyard with the Republic of Georgia and Hong Kong exhibits, another Italian Pavilion, and two absolutely breathtaking Chinese installations in an unbelievable building called Magazzine degli Olii, where gasoline was once stored and which is still filled with stunning rust-covered tanks. And let's not forget the Automobile Club of Italy's history of the automobile exhibit, also within the Arsenale bounds.


Wait, there's still more. Scattered throughout the city — including on several of the tiny "neighbor" islands — are the "Participating Countries in Town" exhibits — 29 of them. And there are "Collateral Events in Town" — 33 of them. And there are many unofficial-but-Biennale-like exhibits installed by savvy museum curators and gallery owners capitalizing on the contemporary-art-crazy crowds who visit during the Biennale.

We're not even going to mention the 5th International Festival of Contemporary Dance, the 39th International Theatre Festival, the 51st International Festival of Contemporary Music, or the 64th Venice Film Festival, all officially parts of the big show staged during the Biennale months of June through November. Because then it truly would become overwhelming.

Let me assure you that if you start at either the Giardini or Arsenale, pick up a free program booklet (or two or three if you're as messy a note-taker as I), settle down with a map, an espresso — or a gelato — at a comfortable cafe and make a plan, you'll do just fine. Or just go for it — wander around aimlessly. That's a perfectly enjoyable way to experience this unbelievable spectacle, too. And as you gaze in amazement at hundreds and hundreds of works of art — some of them massively large — keep in mind that every single one of them arrived in Venice to take its place in Biennale history ... by boat.


No surprises here. War dominates — and not just Iraq and Afghanistan but World War I, Vietnam, Lebanon — in every visual medium you can think imagine. Death — a subject artists have dealt with head-on since the beginning of time. Some works stir sadness; some are positively uplifting. Terrorism — in all its forms and in every sense of the word. Displacement — both physical and cultural — and, much more hopefully, sense of place and culture preserved. The suspension of human rights and, happily, on the other hand, bold new freedom. For me, this is most clearly illustrated by the artists from the former Soviet republics and the Eastern Bloc countries: They display their newfound freedoms in fantastic creative outbursts. There's also humor. And yes, there's natural, peaceful beauty. For every picture tells a story, doesn't it? Even if the message is as simple as "I'm beautiful."


What were my favorites among the dozens of pieces I saw at Venice's 2007 Biennale?

First, I'll toot America's artistic horn. As most travelers know, we are not adored overseas these days, especially in Europe. And so it is particularly noteworthy that for the first time ever, an American critic, Robert Storr, was invited to direct the Biennale. In my opinion, he and all the participating American artists gave us plenty of which to be proud.

The playful-yet-profound art of Cuban-born American Felix Gonzalez-Torres fills the U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini. Sadly, he represents us posthumously; he died of complications of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 39. His signatures are light-bulb strings (he strings the bulbs and then leaves it to the curator to arrange it as he or she sees fit) and take-away components — most often paper stacks and candy drops, of which there are "endless supplies." They are most always "Untitled," although descriptive cards do give clues to what he was thinking. They are all here. Outside the pavilion is a spectacular sculpture which Gonzalez-Torres sketched and designed but did not live to see completed. Two stunning Carrara marble, barely touching "pools" are filled to different levels naturally by summer rain. On sunny days, overhanging tree branches in full bloom cast ever-shifting shadows.

Jason Rhoades is another American artist who died young and before this Biennale. His "Tijuanatanjierchandelier" is an eye-popping cultural statement of neon, found objects, tourist kitsch, mattresses, more. It fills an entire room in the Arsenale.


In 2004, San Franciscan Emily Prince began her ongoing memorial, "American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis)." Her intimate portraits, drawn on different "skin-toned" vellum, are each placed in the soldier's home state on a U.S. map. Because of its scale, it takes a minute for this work to register in its entirety, but when it does, it is gripping. One naturally gravitates to one's own home state to mourn, albeit briefly, the human cost of war.

American Bill Viola's video project "Ocean Without a Shore" is one of this Biennale's most thought-provoking works. Installed in the tiny 15th-century Church of San Gallo, it is an intense look at the thin line between life and death and it is positively mesmerizing. My friends had to drag me away.

Another video installation, this one by Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong, deals with death in an equally gripping and perhaps even more universal way. Ten video projections on 10 very large screens show people in 10 different countries all saying, each in his or her own language, directly into the camera, the exact same phrase: "I will die." I sat enveloped in the dark watching these screens for a long time on several occasions. Children, doctors, cab drivers, grandmothers speak an at-first frightening phrase that truly and absolutely unites us all. After the initial shock, there is something strangely comforting in that.

China is also represented by a group of four artists who exhibited inside and outside the Magazzine degli Olii at the Arsenale. The most chilling of these works is "Weapons" and, although they look like missiles flying through the air, upon closer inspection you realize that the interior structures are "dressed" in clothes, much of it designer labels.

The most poignant work for me is Moroccan Mounir Fatmi's "Save Manhattan '03" in the African pavilion. It is another piece to which I returned several times and was amazed at how many people passed it by or didn't "get" it. A grouping of audio speakers quietly emitting "city sounds" in the center of the gallery floor caught viewers' attention. But few noticed the shadow on the wall behind that faithfully depicted the New York City skyline ... including the World Trade Center towers.

I was grateful to have come upon, completely by accident, New Zealand's installation in a building on the Giudecca Canal that was originally an ancient storage space used to pack salt, once one of Venice's most important trading products. A collaboration between two artists of Maori heritage, "Aniwaniwa" is a series of large carved sculptures with internal video and audio projections and are suspended from the very high ceiling. The floor is covered with black padding and black pillows because lying prone is the only way to appreciate this work. It is the story of the flooding of the Maori town of Horahora, the tale of the submersion of a culture, a global warming warning. It is touching, sadly familiar and magnificently presented.


The most breathtaking pieces of all for me are "Dusasa I" and "Dusasa II" by El Anatsui, an African artist born in Ghana who now lives and works in Nigeria. You come upon them suddenly in the Arsenale. They face each other, they are immense in scale and they look like curtains of gold. They are, in fact, made of bottle caps, discarded metal tags, aluminum and copper wire stitched together. I saw these many times, from far away, up close, and every distance in between. I took many pictures of them. And I still don't believe how incredible they are or how this man could possibly have made them.

There was much, much more: Russia's animated and live-action video that leaves no contemporary subject unturned; Bulgaria's bizarre intellectual property dispute with Russia over the AK-47 and, in the end, yogurt bacteria; American Christine Hill's home-offices-in-trunks; Poland's architectural "utopian memento" pressing against the interior of the pavilion yearning to be free; the Republic of Georgia's gorgeous, ominous paintings; Venezuela's glorious Gods of America photographs; Singapore's comic book-ish erotic fantasy sculptures; Spain's absolutely hilarious and unforgettable video "The Electoral Night." And much more, there is always more.

So here's my advice if the Biennale lands on your list, too. Leave your expectations and preconceived notions at home. Pack as much open-mindedness and wide-eyed wonder as you can fit into your suitcase and just go. You will be roundly rewarded. The world of contemporary art will, literally, unfold at your feet. And then it will surround you.

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